whilst

I saw the following sentence today in a little health calculator tool on the web, one of several options in a question about back pain: “I have no pain whilst travelling.”

I looked a second time to confirm that travelling had been spelled with two l’s. Of course it had. That’s the British spelling. And whilst is generally a flag for a British dialect.

It’s not that no one in Britain uses while. If I search the Telegraph‘s website, I see 2,970 hits for while in the most recent articles – compared to 6,710 for whilst. The Guardian, on the other hand, gives me 11,132 hits for whilst, and 446,935 for while. But of course while also has more uses (e.g., I haven’t seen you in a while). Cross the pond and you see that the New York Times has in the past 7 days used while more than 10,000 times – and whilst only 6 (not 6,000, just 6). The Globe and Mail gives me 343,369 results for while in all its contents, and 388 results for whilst. In the British parliament’s records (parliament.uk), while gets 158,169 hits and whilst gets 47,595; on parl.gc.ca, the Canadian parliament site, while as a simple search gets 55,296 hits and whilst gets 275.

In short, on the basis of these counts, use of whilst in relation to while appears to be an order or two of magnitude more frequent in Britain than in North America. And that matches what I think we all expect.

But what do we think of whilst? It’s cleaner, crisper, more definite; by comparison with it, while seems to wander. Of course, while has the effect of its other senses – noun (all the while; it’s been a while) and verb (while away the time), the latter of which in particular lends a laziness to it. But whilst also has the sound of a broom that doesn’t simply let time blow by, it sweeps it past. It has a taste of whisht (meaning “shut up” or “hush”) and whistle and wist (as in wistful) and, for that matter, whist (a card game, as you may know). You may also get a note of hissed and perhaps hilt.

I have no evidence for this – it would take me more time than I have right now to gather it – but I think it has a greater air of formality or correctness. At least in North America it is likely to, since it’s associated with British usage, and in particular more formal British usage.

It’s one of a family of words that also counts as members amongst, amidst, and even against: all have versions without the st as well (though again – or agin, as some people spell it – is not current in standard English to mean “against”). Now try each in alternation:

I have no pain while travelling.
I have no pain whilst travelling.

His money was scattered among the flowers.
His money was scattered amongst the flowers.

He remained placid amid a swarm of hooligans.
He remained placid amidst a swarm of hooligans.

You may also detect slight differences in shadings of meaning; amongst may seem more distributive, for instance. But what difference of tone do you taste?

Would you be inclined to think that the st versions are less formal or less correct? That they are errors, perhaps? Probably not. But you may be interested to know that they are newer.

Oh, they’re still old. Whilst, amidst, and amongst all showed up first around 1400. (Their shorter counterparts have been around as long as there’s been an English.) But originally they were whiles, amids, and amongs; the s was the genitive that was commonly used at the time for forming adverbial uses (you can see it also on anyways, besides, and similar words). But about a century later the t showed up.

And why did that t appear? Did something happen whilst they were speaking? Well, yes, the same thing that leads some speakers even today to add one to the word once (causing novelists the nuisance of having to decide whether to write oncet or wunst, neither of which looks right or reads smoothly). It may be by analogy with the superlative st ending (e.g, biggest, meanest), or it may just be a little phonological epenthesis like the /t/ or /d/ some people sometimes say after a word-final /n/: a post-stopping.

So, yeah, if today’s language pedants had been around in the 1500s, they would have been railing about these horrible new idiocies with the woefully uneducated st endings. But these words are instead entrenched in the language, time-honoured, whilom party crashers now wearing white tie and hobnobbing with the guests of honour. Language ever changes, and these are the sorts of things that go on whilst it does.

6 responses to “whilst

  1. I wonder if the final /t/ epenthesis is a result of hypercorrection. In some dialects word-final clusters ending with /d/ or /t/ lose the final consonant, and sometimes they get added back where they don’t belong (as in drownd).

  2. I find that whilst can lend a poetic or old-fashioned flavour to a text. This isn’t always apt, but I’m glad the option is there. Some people seem to loathe the word; I don’t use it often, but I don’t mind it.

  3. It came to my attention, as such things do, over the past year, whilst I thought of other things. Although it remains largely British, as you noted, the back and forth between BrE and AmE seems to be picking up steam. I like the choice it represents.

  4. Count me as one who loathes it, except maybe when it’s being used ironically, to add a faux olde worlde flavoure. Otherwise, it just smacks of pomposity.

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